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Should whites direct black plays, and vice versa?

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Seated around a large table during the first week of rehearsal for "The Night Is a Child," director Sheldon Epps guides his actors' investigation of a scene between an American woman and the hotel owner she encounters in Brazil. He asks them about the differences between Boston and Brazil, the grayness versus the color, and the contrasts that these first scenes must embody.

With a cast led by JoBeth Williams, Charles Randolph-Wright's "The Night is a Child" opens Friday in its West Coast premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, where Epps is artistic director. The play revolves around the experience of Williams' Bostonian, and that of her family, in the wake of a Columbine-style killing spree by one of her sons.

Key characters in this play are a white woman and her family. The director happens to be black, as does the playwright. Should it matter?

If the answer seems simple, recent dialogue in the theater community suggests otherwise. What Epps has created in this Pasadena rehearsal room is largely the exception. A theater that facilitates artists of any race or ethnicity working on plays about characters of any race or ethnicity is far from the norm.

In fact, since spring, when a revival of August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" opened on Broadway, the American theater has been engaged in a racially charged discussion of who should direct what. Should white artists direct plays that are black in authorship and subject? And by extension, should black -- and Latino, Asian, mixed-race and other -- directors be hired to stage plays written by white authors? Such are the questions being posed.

"I don't think there is a simple and satisfactory answer," says black playwright Lynn Nottage, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "Ruined." "This conversation is part of our cultural growing pains, and it's one of the many steps in the road to defining our creative and cultural identity."

The controversy was ignited when Tony-winning director Bartlett Sher was tapped to helm the Wilson revival. Wilson, who died in 2005, had insisted that only black directors stage his work. But his widow, Constanza Romero, approved the choice of Sher, who is white. This production marked the first time a Wilson play had been directed by a white director on Broadway. And black artists have voiced concern about the precedent.

"The conversation around 'Joe Turner' has been a catalyst," says Laura Penn, executive director of the Society of Directors and Choreographers, a union for theater artists. "Yes, there was conversation about it as an aesthetic choice, but the conversation among our members quickly moved to access and opportunity."

No 'reverse opportunity'

Randolph-Wright and Epps are among the relatively few African American theater artists who have had the chance to direct major productions of nonblack plays, including Molière, Shakespeare, Stoppard, Noel Coward, Ibsen and more. Both have also worked in television; Epps directed many episodes of "Frasier" and "Friends." And yet, despite their personal successes, they both perceive a systemic ill.

"The problem is, there is no balance," says Randolph-Wright, who appeared in the original Broadway version of "Dreamgirls" before turning to writing and directing. "I don't think by any means that Bart Sher can't direct an August Wilson play or any kind of play. But people of color don't get the reverse opportunity."

Penn says that among SDC rank and file, "most didn't begrudge Bart the opportunity. The conversation was about Wilson having been for so long something African American directors could count on and that there should be more access and opportunities for artists of color." Penn was formerly the managing director of the Intiman Theater in Seattle, where she worked with artistic director Sher. During their years working together there, the Intiman, like Pasadena, successfully mixed it up in terms of assignments, with white directors directing nonwhite works and vice versa.

Yet because opportunities that have traditionally gone to black directors -- such as Wilson's plays -- may now be open to directors of any color is of concern to Randolph-Wright. "There was not one black director on Broadway last season," he notes. "And the frightening thing now is, I'm not even going to get the black project."

Nottage created "Ruined" in collaboration with director Kate Whoriskey, a white woman who has been tapped to succeed Sher at the Intiman. Yet she too sees a matter for concern. "It seriously worries me that young African American directors . . . are not being hired at the same rate as their white counterparts to direct Shanley, O'Neill and Shaw."

For Epps, it is less an artistic issue than a workplace quandary. "The flak surrounding 'Joe Turner' was about the wrong thing," he says. "Bart is a proven, accomplished director. And if he's attracted to that material, let him do it. What seems to be becoming true is that there is the assumption, though sometimes with some controversy, that a white director can handle that material. That assumption doesn't exist nearly as freely for a black director moving in the other direction. Then you lose that which one would assume you could do to white directors. And the problem then becomes that you as a person of color literally just lose employment opportunities and work weeks.

"I don't have a problem with it aesthetically. I have a problem with it in actuality. When there is a free flow in both directions, then it is no issue at all to me."

Even at liberal theaters, black directors are typically hired to stage only black plays. This may be a holdover from 1990s multiculturalism, when it was considered politically correct to match artists with work from their own cultural origins. Today, artists reject the notion that they should be limited to working on plays about people of their own color.

"African American directors are often hired solely for the people-of-color slot at regional theaters, which means directing only once or twice a year," says Nottage. "So I understand why some people are concerned when white directors begin taking the few slots reserved for people of color, but I don't think the answer is to create a segregated theater world but rather to figure out how to create a more inclusive one."

The old-boy network

The problem may be partly a matter of business as usual. "You hire who you know," says Randolph-Wright. "They go to the same writers, directors and the same little core group of people. I don't think it's racism as much as it's cronyism. White men get the opportunities. We're always having to prove ourselves."

"It's not that somebody thinks of it and rejects the idea, when a Noel Coward revival comes around," says Epps. "It's that they don't think of it. That's a bigger obstacle."

Epps remains one of but two black artistic directors of a major regional theater, and that has enabled him to do projects that might not otherwise have come to fruition. "It's because I'm on the inside," says Epps. "You have to be in the club. And because you can't get into the club, you have to create your own club. I guarantee you that this will exist a lot less when there are more black artistic directors of regional theaters."

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